(CNSNews.com) – Tightening the screws on Iran, the Trump administration for the first time ever is offering monetary rewards, under a terrorism-focused program, for information that will disrupt the financial operations of a foreign government entity.
The move announced by the State Department Wednesday came on the same day the Treasury Department imposed broad sanctions on an Iranian oil shipping network, and on the heels of Tuesday’s sanctions against Tehran’s space program.
The decades-old Rewards for Justice program has paid out more than $150 million to individuals who have provided actionable information that helped bring to justice specific wanted terrorists – including 1993 World Trade Center bombing mastermind Ramzi Yousef – or prevent planned terror attacks.
On Wednesday, it offered as much as $15 million “for information leading to the disruption of the financial mechanisms of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its branches, including the IRGC-Qods Force (IRGC-QF).”
It follows the IRGC’s designation last April as a foreign terrorist organization – also the first time ever that a foreign government entity had been added to the FTO blacklist.
Briefing reporters at the State Department, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Brian Hook linked the reward offer to the new sanctions targeting what he described as an IRGC “oil-for-terror network.”
“This network has moved hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of illicit oil,” he said. “That money is then used to fund terrorism.”
Sixteen entities – including the India-based company Mehdi Group – ten individuals and eleven ships have been designated. All will be denied access to the U.S. financial system, have any assets in the U.S. frozen, and be listed online as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs). And any non-U.S. person who does business with them could themselves be sanctioned as a result.
According to the administration the Mehdi Group has crewed and managed at least seven ships used by the IRGC network, including the supertanker Adrian Darya 1.
Hook highlighted ways in which the IRGC conceals its illicit maritime activities.
“It cloaks the origin of its oil. It falsifies documents. And it hides the location of its vessels by turning off transponders, which violates international maritime law and is a threat to safety on the high seas,” he said.
“Countless Iranian vessels have gone dark just before delivering illicit cargo to places like Syria and to China,” Hook added.
This week, the Adrian Darya turned off its transponders off the coast of Syria, weeks after the regime gave written commitments to British authorities in Gibraltar that the ship would not take its cargo of 2.1 million barrels of crude oil to Syria.
On the strength of those assurances Gibraltar released the ship, which had been detained for six weeks on suspicion of violating European Union sanctions against the Assad regime.
“This vessel was released by Gibraltar based on guarantees provided by the Iranian government that it would not deliver its oil to Syria, which is exactly where it appears to be headed now,” Hook said.
Hook recalled that the U.S. on Friday sanctioned the tanker’s captain, Indian national Akhilesh Kumar, “for providing material support to a terrorist organization.”
On Wednesday the Financial Times reported that those sanctions came after the State Department unsuccessfully tried to persuade Kumar to halt the Adrian Darya’s course by offering him a cash payment.
Citing that report, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif accused the U.S. of resorting to blackmail after failing to prevent the ship’s release from Gibraltar.
“Having failed at piracy, the US resorts to outright blackmail – deliver us Iran’s oil and receive several million dollars or be sanctioned yourself,” Zarif tweeted.
That prompted a riposte in kind from State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus, who turned Zarif’s language around.
“Having failed at piracy, Iran resorts to outright blackmail – deliver us $15 billion or we will further our nuclear developments,” she tweeted.
The $15 billion refers to a French proposal for the Iranians to be offered $15 billion in credit lines if they return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal.
Ortagus’ reference to Iran’s threat to further its nuclear developments relates to a regime pledge to announce a new “reduction” of its JCPOA obligations as early as Thursday.
It will be the third such reduction – violation – of the deal it struck with the Obama administration and five other governments in 2015.
“Iran will take the third step in reducing its obligations under the JCPOA and announce the details of this step today or tomorrow and will act accordingly,” President Hassan Rouhani told a cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
Earlier this year the regime said it would no longer honor its JCPOA commitments to keep its heavy water reserves at a maximum of 1.3 tons, or to keep its stockpile of low-enriched uranium limited to 300 kilograms.
It then exceeded that 300 kg ceiling, and began enriching uranium to 4.5 percent purity, above the 3.67 percent limit set by the deal.
Iranian officials have been hinting that the next step would be to ramp up that level to 20 percent enrichment – basically the level which Iran had reached before the JCPOA was agreed upon.
According to International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines, uranium enriched to more than 20 percent is defined as high-enriched uranium. Weapons-grade HEU is around 90 percent, but experts explain that reaching upper levels of enrichment requires less work than lower ones, so an advance from 20 percent to 90 percent would not be as steep as it sounds.
Depending on the design and specifications, a nuclear bomb requires roughly 10-30 kg of weapons-grade HEU.